A pattern I have noticed is that the areas of my life that
are working well tend to rest on a stable, well-defined foundation. This foundation
is a place I can easily return to when things get chaotic for a while, and it
is extremely helpful for cutting through uncertainty and messiness. I can count
on it to keep me afloat. It not only helps to maintain a certain level of
health and well-being, but it also acts as a platform from which I can experiment
and grow. Should an experiment not turn out well, again, I can return to the
foundation to recharge until I try something else.
The foundation is ever-present, yet non-pervasive. It’s always there, but it doesn’t feel like some evil dictator looming over me. It’s relaxed, yet solid. I’m grateful for its presence, though it’s so well-integrated into my life that I sometimes take it for granted. The foundation does its work quietly.
Foundations in My Life
Some areas of my life foundations have worked well in the long-term (i.e. relative to a 19-year old) include diet and mental-emotional well-being.
Another area of my life that has worked well for more than a few years is physical activity—it’s quite easy to get myself to go running almost every day, for almost any length of time. This has been the case for at least 5 years (I’ve been running for 7). However, I haven’t noticed any obvious foundation in my running that keeps me at it consistently. I could say that running is the foundation of physical activity for me. If I don’t move around in any other way, I can always count on myself to go running. But as far as the running itself goes, I’m not so sure. It’s something I’ll have to think about (well, or just shut up and notice).
Diet was the first aspect of life that I deliberately used a foundation to support. I established the foundation for a healthy diet almost 3 years ago. It took about 6 months of research and experimenting, and by the end of February 2013 I had something of substance figured out—something which would serve as the foundation for my diet.
The foundation I developed can be summed up quite simply: avoid food additives.
What I did in the “research and experimenting” period was look at the labels on different food packages, do a Google search on the ingredients that sounded strange, and read a few different articles on each one. If the consensus seemed to be that the ingredient was potentially dangerous to health, I wrote it down on a list of other ingredients of this type and took note to avoid it.
An ingredient that “sounded strange” is one that you can’t exactly imagine, because you have no idea what it looks like. “Carrots” is an ingredient you can imagine. You know what carrots look like. “Monosodium glutamate”? At best I can imagine a pile of powder. Whatever the case, it’s certainly not something I’ve seen in the kitchen cabinet before.
The “experimenting” side of improving my diet consisted of trying different foods and seeing how they made me feel. I wanted to eat better because stomach/intestinal pain had been a constant presence for pretty much my whole life, and it only got worse each year. It seemed to get even worse when I ran. After one race I had to lay in bed all day because I was in so much pain. That’s when I knew something had to change. I couldn’t live like that anymore.
So, the main criterion of whether a food passed my judgment was whether it brought on stomach pain. Fogginess of mind and general sluggishness (an energy drain) were considered as well.
It didn’t take long for me to conclude that most strange-sounding ingredients, or “food additives,” were just that—additions. In other words, they were unnecessary. It was heart-wrenching. I couldn’t understand why people would put these substances in perfectly good food—especially when all they did was make me sick. Wouldn’t it be easier to just leave the food as it is?
Challenges of Foundation-Development
This was a hard time. I had difficulty figuring out what to eat. It seemed like foods with food additives- AKA “processed foods”- were everywhere. Every damn loaf of bread had about 50 ingredients. Every cracker and chip was flavored. Every cereal box contained added sugar. Not only that, but my diet had been so poor my whole life up until I was 16, I was practically addicted to sugar and to a general artificial taste of food—a taste which I had no idea existed until I tried something non-threatening, such as peanut butter without any added sugar, salt, or hydrogenated oils.
The taste of “real” foods, at first, was like poison. But the foods containing sugar and unpronounceable concoctions made me feel terrible, and I couldn’t stand it anymore. So I trudged onward.
I’ve gone a bit beyond the scope of this article, but the point is that establishing a foundation for my diet was not easy. I had to build it, with my own two hands (well, and some help from the Internet). Yet, that hard work paid off, because in the last 3 years my diet has only continued to improve.
Foundations Provide Boundaries
That initial foundation I developed was largely based on what not to do. Don’t eat this. There wasn’t much of an eat that aspect to it. However, it was a sufficient place to start from. It was enough for me to figure out what indeed there was to be eaten. It’s basically a subtraction problem. If I can’t eat this, what remains that I can eat?
In my subjective experience, however, it felt more like subtracting foods of one type (processed foods) and adding foods of another (“whole” foods). Indeed, I was subtracting from the pool of existent foods. But, as far as my own diet went, if all I did was subtract I would have been left with almost nothing.
Unfortunately I did the subtracting far faster than I did the adding, and I was a little too small for a while, but I figured out how to eat sustainably soon enough. Of course, it doesn’t have to happen that way—I wasn’t exactly right in the head at the time, and just the right combination of bad ideas (restricting my food intake) and good ideas (eating healthier foods) came together at just the right time.
Thankfully, I’ve been able to largely drop the “bad” side of that equation and keep the “good” side. How I did this is the story of another foundation, which I shall get to soon. Overall, I assure you that eating healthfully doesn’t have to coincide with being dangerously thin and off-your-rocker. It just happened to start out that way for me is all. :P
Anyway, what that initial foundation did was hold a space for me to experiment and to collect data. It put a constraint on the foods I could eat (i.e. the presence of food additives). That single constraint gave me a starting point from which to figure out which foods were best. It narrowed down the pool of options tremendously.
Foundations Can Be Built On
What I’ve been doing for the last 3 years since I first settled on that additive-free foundation is continue to narrow the pool. I’ve built new foundations on top of that first one. Some have come and gone and come back again, yet the initial foundation has always remained.
I’m safe to experiment with different diets because if they don’t work out I know I always have a strong foundation to return to. When the waters get rough, and I’m in a situation where all the available options are less than ideal, I can always find something that means the standards of that core, additive-free foundation. It’s allowing-enough that I can always find something to eat, yet it’s high-quality enough that I can always feel relatively-okay about what I’m eating. It has both yin and yang.
The standards that foundation calls for are high, to be sure—I have yet to meet anyone else who adheres to them. Yet, it is yielding enough that it virtually never fails me. I don’t starve. I have plenty of options.
At this point in my life, adhering to those standards is dirt simple. I don’t even have to think about eating relatively-healthily anymore. It’s like running. It just happens. It takes me half an hour- at least- to notice my legs are moving. It’s perfectly normal for me.
From the outside it tends to appear ridiculous and nearly-impossible to match up to. From the inside, it’s just the way things are.
Junk food is a thought in my mind at times, but the idea of actually eating it is unfathomable. It’s just something I don’t do. It’d be like not running. Why would I do that? My mind can’t comprehend the question. You’d have to bring in the foundation-breakers for that to happen.
Thankfully, I haven’t come across much of anything that has put a crack in my diet-foundation nor in my running foundation. They are strong, and they keep me strong. We hold each other up. The more I maintain high standards, the easier it is to maintain high standards. It’s simple momentum.
The additional foundations I mentioned were basically experiments in raising my standards. Again, it’s a subtraction problem—it’s narrowing the pool. When I make changes to my diet I essentially say, OK—these are all the foods the foundation of my diet allows for. I’m going to cut out a certain group of foods for a while and see what happens. If it works, it becomes a new foundation, built on top of the initial one. If it doesn’t, I get rid of it.
Additional Foundation #1: Gluten-Free
One such higher-up foundation I’ve built is being gluten-free. I established that in February 2015, and have maintained it for the last 10 months. I used the original test of seeing whether gluten induces pain, fog of brain, and/or a drop in energy.
It would have been too much too soon if I had tested gluten in 2013, because I was just developing and getting comfortable with the initial foundation. Plus, I had way too many other things to test. I wasn’t ready to think about cutting out wheat yet—it was hard enough to find wheat that wasn’t combined with food additives.
Two years later, however, the foundation was well-established enough that testing gluten was easy. I had plenty of other foods to fall back on, because the do eat that side of the equation was sufficiently well-developed. It quickly became clear that cutting gluten reduced fog of brain and a drop in energy after eating. The change was also easy to maintain; so, I’ve kept it.
Two other higher-up foundations I developed alongside being gluten-free are being corn-free and soy-free. I haven’t stuck to these full-on 100% like I have with being gluten-free, though I’ve defied them only several times. Each time, I found it was a mistake, and it was not in my interest to do it again.
This is a good point to mention that a solid foundation is clearly defined. This lets you be certain of whether you are defying a foundation or acting in accordance with it. Especially in your early days of using it, you are probably going to defy your foundation at least once. You probably will eat gluten or corn or food additives. However, because the foundation is clearly defined, there will be no questions about the fact that you are violating it. All that remains, then, is the results of that violation. Can you deal with the consequences of violating your foundation, or can’t you? If you can, then it’s not really a foundation. You don’t really care for it. If you can’t, then you are less likely to violate that foundation again. You will not be returning to Burger King after eating a wrap that tastes like puke (that was the last time I ate fast food). You know it is not worth your while.
Additional Foundation #2: Vegan
A higher-up foundation which I’ve held and let go of multiple times is being vegetarian/vegan. I’ve made 3 deliberate efforts at being vegetarian/vegan (vegetarian once, vegan twice), and in between those efforts I tried to keep animal product-consumption low.
The first two efforts failed because I could accept that consequences of violating the vegetarian/vegan foundation (i.e. the rules of being vegetarian/vegan, which is to consume no meat/no animal products at all). As long as the meat and dairy products passed the standards of my initial foundation, meaning they had no questionable food additives, I couldn’t see a good enough reason to avoid them completely.
Still, my standards increased steadily over time. At first, seeing that a meat was free of antibiotics and preservatives was good enough for me. However, after I ditched corn, wheat, and soy, I figured I couldn’t eat animals that ate those things, either. So, I was down to eating grass-fed meat and animal products only.
Finally, I decided to take another swing at being vegan, and at the end of 30 days I could no longer accept the consequences of violating veganism. I felt so much better overall, and the bad experiences I’d had with meat were clear enough in my mind that I didn’t want to go back.
So, after 6 months, I can say that veganism is now a higher-up foundation of my diet, which rests upon that original foundation of being additive-free. I don’t foresee myself violating either one anytime soon.
I can see now that those original tests of gastrointestinal pain, fog of brain, and energy came into play here again. I experienced less fog of brain and less of an energy-drop after eating while vegan, so it seemed to me a worthwhile change to keep.
And I continue to return to these tests again and again. For this month, December 2015, I’m not going to eat peanut butter at all. 3 years ago I couldn’t have imagined that peanut butter would ever be up for question. However, the more I raise my standards, the more I can raise my standards. As such, peanut butter has become the current target in my quest to eat healthier and healthier.
The results have been fantastic already. It’s far easier to sustain high energy levels and mental clarity without peanut butter. The main challenge is making sure I consume enough calories every day, since I was so dependent on peanut butter for them before.
Achieving this counts on aligning with what I now see as the foundation of a healthy diet. The primary food groups are fruit, vegetables, nuts, and seeds—specifically, all raw. The secondary food groups are cooked vegetables, beans, and grains. To make this easier for myself, I listed out all the foods I know of from each group that I can eat. I’ll share it with you:
Primary Foods (all raw):
Fruit: Bananas, Apples, Oranges (tangerines, nectarines, clementines, mandarins), Blueberries, Strawberries, Dates, Tomatoes (yes!), Avocado; Peaches, Plums/prunes, Blackberries, cranberries, mangoes, coconut, pineapples, currants, raisins, figs, cantaloupe, watermelon, cherries, grapes, pomegranate, honeydew, lemon, lime, kiwi, pear, raspberry, apricot, olives; plantains, star fruit, durian
Vegetables: Spinach, Zucchini, Celery, Lettuce (romaine mainly), Peppers, Kale, Carrots, Onions, garlic; Beets, Arugula, Bok choy, Turnips, Radishes, Peas in a pod, chives; Kohlrabi, chard, mustard greens, Okra, leeks, shallots, watercress
Nuts: Almonds, Walnuts, Cashews, Brazil nuts, Filberts, Pine nuts, hazelnuts, chestnuts, pistachio, macadamias, pecans
Seeds: Hemp, Pumpkin, Sunflower, Flax, Chia; Sesame, Poppy, Caraway; Apricot seeds, Cumin seeds, grape seeds
Secondary Foods/Allowed Exceptions (Cooked foods)
Cooked vegetables: Eggplant, Yellow Squash, Broccoli, Green beans, some beets, Mushrooms, Brussel sprouts, asparagus, cabbage, escarole
Beans: Lentils, Great White Northern, Black, Kidney, Cannellini, Garbanzo (chickpeas), Pinto; Adzuki, Fava, Black-eyed peas, Alfalfa, Lima, Mung, Navy
Grains: Oats (rolled and uncooked especially), Rice; Amaranth, Millet, Sorghum, Quinoa
I listed the foods by order of putting those I eat most first. It isn’t a necessary order, though it helps give me a few foods to focus on, so I can avoid decision-fatigue.
I also listed out the foods that I would like to limit, as well as those that are straight-up prohibited.
Deliberately Limit These Foods
Potatoes (all kinds. If I’m going to eat potatoes, try to stick to purple ones)
Chocolate (mainly due to the caffeine. I usually don’t have much anyway)
Tea, especially caffeinated tea (again, I usually don’t have much anyway)
Oils: coconut, olive (I usually don’t have much of these things anyway)
Larabars: save these for ultramarathons
The usual: All animal products, wheat, corn, soy, added sugar, added salt (ultras only please!), caffeine (coffee), soybean (“vegetable”) oil, canola oil, weird ingredients/food additives/artificial ingredients/processed foods (what does that look like? How do I say that? What even is that?)
Peanuts and peanut butter
Roasted nuts (OK in a pinch)
Roasted seeds (OK in a pinch)
Not necessarily prohibited, but I’ve developed taste aversions to them: squash (orange), sweet potato, pumpkin, grapefruit
Next Additions: Raw Vegan, and an Intention to Nourish
I suspect that in the future I’ll try cutting out the Secondary Foods for a while, thus eating only the foods in the Primary Foods group and having a raw vegan diet. That feels like too big of a jump right now. Generally, I have found that the most effective dieting goals feel like a stretch, and they are a little scary (OK, the idea of going gluten-free scared me for a whole 2 months), but you can wrap your head around them. You can imagine yourself doing it.
Eliminating grains, beans, and vegetables just feels like too much right now. However, I can get on board with cutting peanut butter and increasing my fruit intake to at least 8-14 servings per day (the last few days it’s been 2 apples, 2 oranges, and 6-10 bananas). Getting to this point was a steady progression of becoming discontent with peanut butter and getting used to eating more fruit at once. All I’ve done with this 30-day challenge is deliberately accelerate that progression.
So, just as I’ve steadily worked my way to the point I’m at now, I’ll steadily work my way to that point, too. As I said earlier, from the inside, it’s not just a subtraction problem—I have to do addition, too.
Since subtracting peanut butter, I’ve added quite a bit of fruit. Fruit is quickly becoming my main source of calories. Such is the case, it appears, for the majority of raw vegans. So, even though my diet isn’t quite raw just yet, I’m steadily building the fruit-focused foundation I need to get there.
This time, I’m trying to do more adding up-front than subtracting. At bottom, this is about not just eating healthier, but also making my relationship to food healthier. It’s not about seeing how little I can get by on anymore. Now it’s about truly nourishing myself. The best way to do that is by eating plenty of foods I feel good about.
I’ve gotten good at the subtracting part. Now, I need to add an intention to nourish myself (rather than simply avoid damage) to my foundation for eating healthily. I need to add this not just as an additional foundation, but I need to take this to the very core of my relationship with food—right alongside being additive-free.
Foundations Allow For and Mitigate Failure
I’ve made quite a few changes to my diet the last few years. Not all stick right away (or ever, for that matter), but up to this point I’ve been able to maintain the best changes I’ve gunned for.
The rewards of success have been plentiful, while the consequences of failure have been minimal. Why is that? Because I have a strong foundation that acts as a safety net. I have a foundation that is so solid I could never want to defy it.
So, if I fail at making a new change, it’s no big deal. I don’t bomb out and go back to my beginnings of eating nothing but corn syrup-covered sugar clusters, because I can’t go back there. Those were foundation-less days. Those were days without organization—without a solid base.
Maybe I can tear down everything I’ve build on top of it, but I can’t rip out the foundation I have since laid down. It’s a part of me now. As long as I have this foundation, I have a space to play—and a space to fail.
More to Come
I’d like to talk more on this concept of using foundations to maintain positive habits and to grow, using other examples from my life. I’ll reserve that for a part two. Stay tuned!
By the way, I think this concept of using foundations would be well-served by a graphic. I’m thinking a pyramid of all the higher-up foundations I’ve used in my diet would work excellently. I’ll have to get to work on that, too (unless you want to do it!). I’ll add it to this article when it’s done.
In the meantime, get thinking. What areas of your life could be improved by building a solid foundation? What would the essence of that foundation be? In other words, what is the one rule or system you can always fall back on to keep your standards high? For me it’s keeping my diet free of food additives. What is it for you?
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